Saturday, Sept. 14, marks the 25th anniversary of the Dominican Sisters of Peace opening of Heartland Farm west of Great Bend. What started as a testament to the value of small, privately owned farms and an experiment with organic farming has evolved over a quarter century to become an example of what agri-tourism in the local economy can look like.
“The farm is in a good place now,” said Sister Terry Wassinger, who has been there since 1992. In 1990, Wassinger visited with Sister Betty Jean Goebel, who brought the original vision for the farm to fruition in 1987. She confided in Wassinger that she knew with the return of cancer, she did not have long to live. She shared her vision, and asked Wassinger to carry forth the vision, which she did.
“Gradually, the farm was growing, but very slowly,” she said. “Different people came and went, but it was good.”
From the very beginning, the Sisters were encouraged to find a way to be financially sustainable. They tried different ideas, some of which they are still doing today. They make soap, operate a gift shop on the farm and offer programs on spiritual guidance and practical know-how, like baking bread and making jam, knitting and crocheting.
Wassinger was searching for livestock the farm could raise, and in 1999, she discovered alpacas.
“I didn’t want an animal that had to be killed,” she said. “The alpacas fit in with the peace mission of farm.”
While there was the financial benefit of breeding and harvesting fleece, the major contribution the alpacas made was they made the farm attractive to visit.
“It set a tone to the farm. People still come out and the first thing they want to see is the alpacas,” she said. In 2013, they’ve delivered five new baby alpacas to the small but growing herd. They are docile and unafraid of humans, often milling around and humming when visitors come to watch them.
Another attraction that draws some to the farm is the hay-bale construction buildings. There are two – a Hermitage where visitors can enjoy a no-tech stay, and an artist studio with rooms for potting spinning, meetings and meal preparations. There is even a “green” bathroom with composting toilet. Those considering different types of green construction can get a hands-on look at the finished product. The farm has also hosted workshops explaining how the hay-bale buildings were constructed.
In 2008 Sister Jane Belanger arrived, coming from another farm in Ohio. She brought with her experience about programing and providing guest spaces. The Sisters began holding a program every month, and fixed up cottages and the some of the empty houses once occupied early on by families, turning them into inviting guest spaces.
In 2009, the Dominican Sisters of Peace merged with six other congregations around the country. In 2010, Heartland Farm set up an advisory council and created an intense five-year plan for the farm. One goal was to become a registered agri-tourism operator.
Recently, the farm also began partnering with the non-profit organization World Wide Opportunities on Organic Farms. WWOOF organizations link people who want to volunteer on organic farms or small holdings with people who are looking for volunteer help.
A year ago, the Sisters invited Reese and Delia Jones to come to the farm. The couple decided to stay and are now employed by the farm. In addition to helping with the farm work, they’ve set up and maintain the Heartland Farm website and help with computer work as needed.
On Saturday, Sept. 14, the public is invited to help celebrate Heartland Farm’s 25th anniversary from 12:30-5 p.m. To get to the farm from Great Bend, travel west on 10th Street for approximately 13 miles, past the county line into Rush County. At CR 390, turn left and head south for about a mile until you spot a wooden sign that says Heartland Farm on your right. Follow the driveway to the cluster of homes and park where indicated.
Tours will be offered, as well as several demonstrations. Music will be provided, and hayrides will offer visitors a chance to see the farm in comfort.